Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – There are less than three weeks to go now to a front-row
battle that could have seismic Springbok significance.
Mark down the very last match of Super Rugby’s ordinary
season on Saturday, June 13 – Sharks v Stormers, Kings Park, 19:10 – if you
enjoy seeing the bull-necked prop species strut their industrial stuff.
With a bit of luck, we will get to see the four likeliest
candidates for Bok squad berths – two looseheads, two tightheads – go head to
head in a derby that is always a take-no-prisoners affair, regardless of the
respective log positions of the combatants.
The visiting Stormers ought to be vying strongly for the SA
conference honours come that day (if not have it wrapped up already) as well as
the best possible finals series playoffs slot.
Make no mistake, the out-of-contention Sharks will only be
wishing to end a problematic campaign on a high note by downing their old
And that’s where the front row scrap, with the Bok 2015
programme looming ever closer, comes into sharp focus.
The Sharks will be dead keen for their two stalwart Test
first-choicers of the Heyneke Meyer tenure, Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du
Plessis, to start the derby, bearing in mind awkward memories of the
first-round contest at Newlands, comfortably won 29-13 by the Stormers.
On that occasion the home outfit’s Steven Kitshoff – one of
the revelations, competition-wide, of the current season – and Vincent Koch
gave a scrummaging lesson to a second-string Sharks prop firm of Thomas du Toit
and particularly their hard-pressed No 3 Matt Stevens.
At the time the traditional Stormers first-choice as
tighthead, Frans Malherbe, was still feeling his way into the campaign as a
substitute, following recovery from long-term injury.
The four-cap Bok has since recaptured his starting berth,
with Koch generally providing impact as a “20-minute man” in the second half.
So despite the emerging Koch’s own possible international
credentials, Malherbe is very much back duelling with the veteran Du Plessis
for rights to the Springbok No 3 jersey.
There is an age gap of some eight years between the
incumbent, 32, and the pretender to his anchorman crown, and in many respects
that makes them a good foil for each other in a Bok squad set-up, with one
“hardebaard” dating back to the RWC-winning 2007 and one more youthful element.
But it is on the loosehead side where things look
particularly intriguing: the flame-haired Kitshoff, 23, still uncapped at Test
level, is undoubtedly the form player in a South African context, currently
eclipsing “Beast” – though you also have to take collective pack effectiveness
into account – for all of set-piece performance, ball-carrying and tackling
Little wonder, after Saturday’s latest triumph over the
Rebels, that SuperSport pundit and former Bok coach Nick Mallett branded the
Stormers’ front row the “best in the competition from a scrummaging point of
Props from other franchises like Trevor Nyakane – aided by
his ability to pack down on either side – are not out of the picture as far as
Bok candidacy is concerned, but that Durban showdown on June 13 looks
increasingly like a spicy meeting of the “big four”.
In short, a pair of ambitious young aspirants are trying to
unseat the long-time Springbok props custodians and the derby should provide
solid further clues as to which pairing deserves to start the World Cup 2015
lead-up phase in green and gold.
There is a potential spanner in the works in that Malherbe
is thought to require one more mandatory “off” weekend for his franchise due to
the deal with SARU, although coach Allister Coetzee could pretty confidently
give him that rest against either of the Cheetahs (this Saturday) or Lions at
Newlands to ensure his presence for the big last-day crunch in the Shark Tank.
As for the Sharks, Du Plessis has played only three of the
last four games and, with a bye also still to come before the derby, could
probably play both remaining fixture against the Rebels and Stormers.
Mtawarira also sat out the second-last overseas tour match
against the Waratahs, so may also have an all-clear to stay at his post for the
remainder of the roster.
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